George Bellows

Review

of an Exhibition

by Jodi Sypher

Published on December 21, 2012

  • Description:

    I had been looking forward to seeing the George Bellows exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and I was not disappointed. My visit to this exhibition reminded me that great color selection, clear (and jargon-free) text panels, and providing just the right amount of background context are of crucial importance to a successful museum experience. The exhibition was enjoyable in no small part because the choices made in these simple details complimented the traditional and realistic style of the artist being presented.

    I visited on a Friday morning when the museum was busy with school and group tours. While there were many visitors in this exhibition — tourists and art classes roaming through, armed with their sketchbooks — it was not overcrowded, and I was able to view each painting at my leisure. When I entered, I was immediately faced with a large reproduction of Bellows’ most recognizable painting of two boxers fighting, created in 1909 and titled “Stag at Sharky’s.” The gallery was painted in a dark maroon that echoed the warm colors in the wall-sized print. To the left of the reproduction was the introductory text in large gold letters: “George Bellows (1882-1925).” The artist’s name was presented in formal serif typeface and held up high on the wall.

    There was nothing else in this first gallery space, making it clear that I was supposed to read the writing on the wall — and I was certainly glad that I took the time to do so. It informed me that Bellows was a man with athletic talents from Ohio who moved to New York in 1904. He studied art with Robert Henri and the Ashcan Artists. It further explained that the Ashcan Artists aimed to, “Chronicle the realities of daily life, and bellows was the boldest and most versatile among them in his choice of subjects, politics and techniques.” The next sentence revealed background information about the artist as well provided a very personal connection to the artist. The text read, “Bellows never traveled abroad but learned from the European masters by seeking out their works in museums, including the Met.” I appreciated that the curator chose to include this information as I found myself thinking what a great tribute to the artist it is to host a retrospective of his work in the museum he used to visit. It also occurred to me that the artist could have once stood admiring works of art in the very spot that I was now standing. My respect for Mr. Bellows increased as I read the concluding sentence, informing me that he died from a ruptured appendix at the young age of 42. In 21 short years, George Bellows became an accomplished painter of realism.

    The exhibition layout consisted of one direct path through many small gallery spaces. At the entrance to the first gallery there was an audio tour available. I passed on the audio since I was enjoying the quiet tranquility of the space and so far the text seemed to be well-written and easy to understand. I noticed the change in wall color from dark maroon to light brown in this gallery. The text panel heading said “NY 1905-8” indicating that this was going to be a chronological presentation of the paintings. There were six oil paintings on the wall and four drawings created with cόnte crayons. All the works were framed ornately in gold. On the wall, high above the paintings, was a quote by the artist in a script font which read, “It seems to me that an artist must be a spectator of life, a reverential, enthusiastic, emotional spectator, and then the great dramas of human nature will surge through his mind–George Bellows, 1917.” This quote was all I needed to read to know what the artist valued. He was a great observer of life and this helped make him an excellent painter. He was interested in capturing the humanity of the working class and their surroundings in America. The paintings directly below the quote seemed to confirm his statement. The subjects of these works included young children bathing in the muddy east river and in a crowded scene on Coney Island Beach.

    I exited to the left and entered a hexagon-shaped room with a black tile floor and high ceilings that felt like a cathedral. The dark, moody maroon color was re-introduced in this room. As I looked at the paintings hanging in this gallery space, the decision to hang the original “Stag at Sharky’s” painting seemed very appropriate. I felt as if the curator was speaking to me through design and layout, saying, “Here is the temple to the artist George Bellows.” The text panel heading in this room read, “Boxers and Portraits, 1907-9.” While it was rewarding to finally view this original famous painting up close and personal, it was the next gallery that had me in awe of the artist’s talent. The gallery wall color changed to a light blue and displayed eight large oil paintings under the theme of Penn Station and the Hudson River with titles such as “Pennsylvania Station Excavation (1909)” and “Excavation at Night (1908).” These two alluring paintings showed the creation of New York’s historic Penn Station. It was not the completed architecture that the artist was interested in, it was the cold, dark night as the workers risked their lives to make the building a reality. On the label, below the brief explanation, was a black and white photograph of the completed building. Another label showed a black and white photo of people traveling through the interior of Penn Station. The addition of these historic photographs helped to provide a sense of the time period in which the artist was living. I found myself staring closely at the thick, textured paint and the broad, confident brushstrokes, and marveling at the fact that the lustrous color in the paintings appeared as if they could have been painted yesterday, rather than 100 years ago.

    Each additional gallery was organized by a different theme such as, The Sea, Family and Friends, Work and Leisure and The War. The curator was a great storyteller throughout the exhibition. Subtle digestible chunks of information were presented as I moved through the galleries and made me feel as if I knew George Bellows personally. As I moved through the exhibition, I discovered the biography of the artist’s life. I learned about his family — his wife, two daughters, and mother —through the labels on the paintings. A small (and rare) self-portrait of the artist was placed in one of the last few galleries. This placement towards the end of the exhibition revealed the man behind the art I had just seen.

    When I saw the painting “Blue Snow, The Battery (1910)” I found myself staring at the scene and wondering if Bellows painted on-site in the cold, dark night with a flashlight, or in his studio? As if the curator read my mind, the very next gallery contained a text panel that read, “Bellows’s Process, 1912-1916.” Although this text panel did not directly answer my question, it did reveal how important the process of lithography and printmaking became in the artist’s career. The exhibition ended with large group portraits of the artist’s family that were much more formal than his early works. The very last painting appropriately took me back to the beginning of the story. The painting recalled in my memory the first reproduction of “Stag at Sharky’s” as the subject in the last painting was of a different boxing match the artist painted before he died.

    The only negative comment I have about viewing the Bellows exhibition was the constant reprimands from security guards to visitors (myself included) that we could not take pictures with our cell phones. Not only did this barking interruption pull me out of my quiet, personal experience, but it was very frustrating! I understand the copyright issue and the damage that a flash can do to works of art. For people who may not be able to afford the catalog, or a traveler who doesn’t want to carry it around New York City, the refusal to let people snap a few photos on a cell phone seemed like an unnecessary (and archaic) precaution in this day and age.

    With the exception of my annoyance at the no-photo policy, I left the exhibition happy. I felt as if I had traveled back in time to the early 20th century through the works of George Bellows. It was as if I had been given a rare glimpse into this seldom-mentioned painter that only a well-organized retrospective could provide.

Latest Comments (1)

good review Jodi

by Kathleen Mclean - December 31, 2012

I hope someone passes this on to the curator.

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